Monday, May 27, 2019

There's No Fight We Can't Both Win

Mammoth Penguins
There’s No Fight We Can’t Both Win
(Fika Recordings)

Between 2010 and 2013, I listened to the band Standard Fare constantly.  I cannot emphasize enough how much I played their two albums.  Over and over again.  I tracked down all of their singles and played those to death as well.  There was something about the trio’s concise bright pop songs that captured my sweet tooth and I never tired of their music.  It sounded great loud and with Emma Kupa’s – let’s just say unique vocals – I sang along at the top of my lungs.  Well, unfortunately, they only lasted those few years.  In my disappointment, I half-heartedly tried to follow the members’ post break-up (which turned out to be Kupa only), but she adopted a more rootsy sound that didn’t appeal much to me.  I only picked up a few singles of hers along the way.  Somehow, I missed the Mammoth Penguins project until they leaked the silly song “I Wanna,” that gleefully falls head over heels into a crush, early this year.  I’m so thankful, because Emma is back in the indie pop rock trio format, writing fantastic melodies that are once again forcing me to listen – and listen enthusiastically – a lot!

There’s an elegance about the straightforward simplicity of this third Mammoth Penguins album that is incredibly appealing.  Lyrically, Kupa mostly covers the aftermath of a break-up and the regrets she has that may have led to its demise.  Yet, still there is an inherent acceptance that these things sometimes don’t work out, despite all of our best intentions and when both parties are good people.  Musically, there’s a nice variety, but in a stripped down no frills sort of way.  The rhythm section of Mark Boxall (bass) and Tom Barden (drums) are so unflappable and tight, the entire album would sound good with just them.  Emma played bass in Standard Fare, but here she proves to be an excellent guitarist as well, but it’s her vocals that are her trademark.  They are unschooled to say the least.  I can completely understand if someone listened and found her voice off-putting, but personally, her vocals are the major highlight for me.  She strains for notes that she can’t reach and its fun as hell to sing along, because I can’t reach them either. 

The opening and closing songs here are my favorites.  “Closure” starts things off at the end – a wistful look back at what was likely a pretty happy relationship, but one that is now over.  Inside this propulsive song, there are a load of contradictions therein.  The song gives every indication of being a love song, while also acknowledging the relief that there’s now closure.  At the end, “We Just Carry On” finds us back where we started, but now everything is more emotional.  She sees her old partner carrying on, but her strength in “Closure” has evaporated (“I feel the thrill of your eyes on mine / and I want to die”).  In between, we are presented at glimpses of where things may have gone awry.  The classic rocking “Dick Move,” lists all the things she should’ve done to keep things together.  She treads on regret some more in “There is so Much More” – “I’ve always hesitated / I tend to look for the negative / never singing your praises.”  The tumultuous “Put it All on You” is a powerhouse of a song, as we gain more insight on how things may not have ended so amicably: “You said I was everything / and then it all stopped / like I was your hallway light / that you just switched off.”  The relationship isn’t the only thing that has ended here as we find out in “Quit My Job,” which should be my anthem (“quit my job and it feels good / now I feel free”), but it’s a little too melancholic sounding to sound like the celebration that I feel it should be.  Perhaps for her, this is more about housecleaning and starting anew.

At any rate, I’m very excited to have this album to enjoy and I highly recommend it.  However, if you’re unfamiliar with Standard Fare, please try to track them down as well.  Meanwhile, I will be tracking down the Penguins' prior releases.

Mammoth Penguins "Closure"

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Teen Body
(Broken Circles)

The first time I heard Teen Body was a couple of months ago.  It was a warm, yet overcast Saturday morning.  I was going for a walk in a quiet neighborhood, enjoying the DKFM live stream.  I often go for a long walk on Saturday mornings and finish at the grocery store so I can stock up on necessities.  Generally, I take the earbuds out and put the phone away, but on this day, I kept the music playing.  A bunch of really good songs played by bands I was unfamiliar with.  One of them turned out to be Teen Body and the debut single, “Validation,” from their second LP Dreamo.  The reason I am telling this dry story is that while doing my usual shopping – wandering aimlessly with a broken shopping cart filled with five or six unrelated items, I was finding it difficult to focus on the music.  Clearly, I am too single-minded to perform more than one task at a time.  Despite this, the chorus to “Validation” with that boinging bassline and four part rhyme scheme became permanently wedged into my consciousness.  I had to find out who that was.  It reminded me of the much missed Veronica Falls, with similarly great vocals and intertwining guitar lines.

Now that I know who created this wonderful song that I have listened to a few hundred times, I am in possession of the full album, and it surpasses my expectations.  Teen Body (a creepy band name if there ever was one) not only capture some of the essence that made Veronica Falls so appealing, but they also exude the exuberance and pop sensibilities of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the taught tunefulness of 90s era Teen Beat Records greats like Unrest/AirMiami, and True Love Always.  

The lyrics bear a hazy dream-like quality, yet there is an urgency to them.  They are little puzzles that contain lot of emotions and deep-seated fears deeply tied to these surreal scenarios.  The title track “Dreamo” is not about sleep and dreams though, it’s more about those long restless or sleepless nights where we find ourselves desperate for relief.  It’s a plea to get some sleep.  To rest one’s mind.  Similarly, the opening, “Fell Off,” dwells on one’s own mistakes and the ensuing regrets of poor decisions.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent many nights (just in the last few weeks, ruminating over my own mistakes, and/or things I should’ve said or done in the moment (“Neverending nights / heavy, cold and bright / little wrong / who couldn’t make it right”).  This catchy song is for those moments.  “Act yr Age” represents the conflicted emotions of being drawn to someone that you may know going in is bad for you.  The lazy plucking strum of the “Ballad of Tomboy Jerry” is the perfect accompaniment for the timidity of the words within, while the narrator in “The Draag” wants to run away from previous mistruths.  The aforementioned “Validation” is loaded with self-doubt – something that can keep one up at night (“Got nothing to show / it’s all circling back to what’s not there / leave me alone / is all I can account for”).  It isn’t till the album closing “Other Places Pt. 2” that we are finally allowed to drift off to the land of dreams (“you’re still somewhere very distant”) and it is quite satisfying.

I have a feeling that I am going to love this album for years to come.  The addictive quality of their music and the breezy vocal harmonies that bring these songs to life, but it’s the understanding words that make it timeless.

Teen Body "Dreamo"

Sunday, May 12, 2019



I’ve mentioned it here before, but I have never been very fond of the term ‘shoegaze.’  It was originally intended as a slight – relegating bands that use effects pedals for their guitars and eschew grandstanding front men to some kind of irrelevancy.  Whatever.  And nowadays, people who are fans of dreamy guitar pop have mostly come to accept and embrace the term.  I have tried, but the sticking point with me is not the original insult so much as that the term is the complete opposite of how one would describe the music being created.  If you really lose yourself into the powerful wash of the music being performed, who cares if the singer is making a spectacle of himself?

Blankenberge, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, are a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  Their second LP (I’ve got to check out the first!), More, is so musically dramatic that it evokes visions of spectacular vistas, of the heavens parting to expose a brilliant sunrise, of things like the big solar eclipse from a couple of summers ago.  This is music that makes one look skyward and feel the immensity of our world and beyond.  This five piece create music that is urgent, vivid, epic, and brimming with an electricity that sends shivers down one’s spine.

The first three songs are vital.  “Islands” is a perfect introduction.  The slow ride cymbal tap, the low buzz of strummed feedback combined with atmospheric high end notes generate a fairly typical shoegaze base, but then the song explodes with a swell of energy and emotion that is simply breathtaking.  Yana Gusselnikova’s vocals are barely there (similar to Isa Holliday from Slow Crush) as she spells out a story of unrequited love.  She’s lying in wait.  Hoping for a chance.  We’ve all had these feelings.  It’s every day.  It’s silly, yet when you are in the midst of those feelings it is overwhelming, it is just about the only thing on your mind.  “Islands” captures that urgency in spades.  Next up is the unrelenting unstoppable driving force that is “Look Around.”   Wow.  The rhythm section of drummer Sergey Vorontsov (those drums fills are like a machine gun) and bassist Dmitriy Marakiv lock into a tight interconnected pulse for the twin guitars of Daniil Levshin and Daian Aizlotov to paint over with what sounds like a warning beacon.  We don’t know what the warning is for but we’d better make haste.  The warning must be for the tidal wave of noise that washes over us during the majestic and powerful chorus.  Absolutely stunning.  Next up is the stuttering and chiming “Right Now.”  This is one of those songs where the lyrics and music synch up in an intriguing way.  The words urge us to be inspired.  To go out and do the things we always wanted to do.  “Let’s get loud right now!”  The indication is that we are holding ourselves back.  That we are wrapped in self-imposed binders doing what we think we have to do, as opposed what we want to do.  Musically, this song matches this fitful image.  The song is teaming with life, but it keeps building and building looking for release.  There is a burst of escape that is glorious, but despite its intentions that song concludes with what sounds like a vicious internal battle.  It is not so easy to break free of our inhibitions and doubts.

After that intense opening, Blankenberge take a breather with the title track “More.”  It’s a dreamy rumination on the beauty of nature, but also a warning against humankind’s endless greed.  The second half of the album is more deliberate overall.  The songs stretch out and find solace in their surroundings.  The stunning instrumental “Waves” feels like it could go on forever, while the surprising and well placed saxophone adds an added touch of beauty to the lovely “Until the Sun Shines.”  The album finishes with “Fest,” an epic if there ever was one.  The significance of celebrating has never felt so important.  The song brings a poignancy to the proceedings with its depth, and it feels like a triumph – something to celebrate.

This is an album to celebrate!  It’s endlessly exciting to encounter music this alive and this remarkable.  Please give this a listen.

Blankenberge "Look Around"